Guest Sermon: Ethical Christianity as a way of Christian Life not quite the Gospel way, so this Preacher Reverend Richard Helmer of Our Saviour (Episcopal), Mill Valley, CA says…
This urge to curry divine favor is so deep, it can pervade our daily lives even in the secular world. We live in a meritocracy, believing if we play “by the rules” and work hard, we will improve our lot. If that sounds strange, listen closely to our politicians this election season. Driving the rhetoric on both the left and right is this notion of earning, planning, and guaranteeing an abundant destiny. It speaks of a sense of control that we all crave.
Faith Statement and Instruction by a Church Rector
Jesus said, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” — Mark 9:42-50
Most of us believe at least sometimes in and even more often behave in a way we might call “ethical Christianity.” It’s born of the notion that our righteous actions garner God’s providential favor; that by being good little Christians, we might earn God’s grace. Some of you may already identify the problem with this approach to faith: it is not the Gospel. But it is a strand of the Biblical witness nonetheless, and we ethical Christians find ourselves in the company of not only well-attended Christian communities across the centuries, but with our ancient ancestors who offered sacrifice and undertook actions deemed correct in the hopes of influencing God or the gods to bring rain at the right time, assure a plentiful harvest, preserve societal security, or help guarantee a healthy inheritance after they departed this world.
This urge to curry divine favor is so deep, it can pervade our daily lives even in the secular world. We live in a meritocracy, believing if we play “by the rules” and work hard, we will improve our lot. If that sounds strange, listen closely to our politicians this election season. Driving the rhetoric on both the left and right is this notion of earning, planning, and guaranteeing an abundant destiny. It speaks of a sense of control that we all crave. But sooner or later we learn that ethical Christianity doesn’t always work. And this becomes perhaps one of the greatest stumbling blocks to our spiritual life. Who is God if he doesn’t reward our best efforts? What is God if she doesn’t love us for being good boys and girls?
Ethical Christianity also tends to drive our institutional religion to homogenize our members. We want good folk who believe, perceive, and behave like us. And then we can wonder why religiosity is often viewed as an imposter by the wider world, and a dangerously oppressive game by too many who have felt crushed by the impositions of their faith heritage.
Jesus knows we suffer this spiritual malaise, and it is nothing new. Primitive religiosity has always haunted human society. But Jesus minces no words when it comes to our more controlling, religious selves. He wants more than mere conformists, a band of good ethical followers. The Pharisees were consummate ethicists. He had little time for their religiosity. He found it deadly.
No, Jesus wants “salty” disciples: salt-of-the-earth folk made of primordial, divine mineral stuff and unstoppable in their transformational witness; a diverse, even ragtag and unexpected community of God-lovers who touch the surrounding world at every level.
Salt was critical for survival in the ancient Near East, and any chef today will tell you that salt is essential to preserve, flavor, and enhance food. Jesus seeks salt in his disciples: the seasoning that gives life and enhances the flavor of an often death-dealing, flavorless world.
.The Kingdom, the Reign of God, depends a great deal on our saltiness. And saltiness is far more than being ethical. Jesus demands not just that we be good, but that we be in relationship, and nothing halfway about it. Anything less than the salty relationship, imperfections and all, does not really transform us or others. And anything less than the offering of our full, true, salty selves to God and each other is good for nothing, destined only for Gehenna, the name of the garbage heap outside Jerusalem, which we often translate simply as “hell.”
The problem with ethical Christianity is that it turns the Gospel on its head. We can’t earn God’s grace or love. Jesus tells us again and again it is already among us. God loved us first, and more than we can ever possibly love back. Nor can we control outcomes. Even our best actions have unforeseen and often unintended consequences. So we are either stuck on this spiritual rubbish heap, or we look for a new place to build our values, ethics, and worldview.
The challenge of the spiritual life is to stop obsessing over Gehenna and embrace the Kingdom Jesus brings among us. How do we become salt in the way he suggests?
Salt, Jesus says, is in ourselves. When we stop forcing ourselves into our tiny notions of what or who we should be – or the world’s – and surrender to the mystery of God who is making us and all the mystery that is there, we uncover our true saltiness made for our joy and the joy of everyone around us.
This may be well our hardest, and yet our most important spiritual task. Living into our saltiness means courageously offering everything we are in relationship and then simply seeing what happens next. We are in for surprises. Salt can enhance flavor, but it also can corrode the iron of our egotistical notions of power and control; it can react in the presence of injustice and bring out the flavors of compassion. It can heighten life-giving divine priorities in our lives and mask the noisy busyness that often blights them.
Francis of Assisi, a salty saint if ever there was one, and whom we remember this month, was known to pray quite simply: “Who are you, God, and who am I?” This might be the best place to begin embracing our saltiness, because it abandons ethical Christianity and the trash-heap of Gehenna for the rich, verdant fields of divine mystery. It starts with relationship and assumes no control of the outcome. It practices (even if we are initially scared to death to believe) that God loves us enough to respond, reveal, direct, and remake us to whatever life-giving ends God sees fit.
My prayers are for each of you as you undertake this journey in your own salty way this season. Your saltiness not only will flavor this parish, but bring out the best in the world around us, enhancing a divine recipe that is cooking up a Kingdom for all eternity.
Love to you all in our Beloved, Salty Christ,
Br. Richard Edward+
The Reverend Helmer practices the spirituality of Gregory as it is a part of the Gregorian Apostolic order where he is a brother, and a novice
Photo of The Reverend Richard Helmer at Easter, 2012 at his Parish Church Our Saviour (Episcopal), Mill Valley, CA USA, taken by architect and photographer Terry Peck.